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All in the Name of Art

October 30, 2008 By:
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In the 1960s and '70s, it seemed that writer and critic John Gruen was everywhere in terms of the art scene, whether the subject was music or painting or dance or architecture. He held several prominent reviewing positions at The New York Herald Tribune before its untimely demise in the late '60s and then hopped over to The New York Times, to review for them and do profiles of artists and writers, for the Sunday edition especially. In this fertile period for the arts, he wrote a number of books, including a coffee-table-sized tome about Leonard Bernstein, and biographies of composer Gian Carlo Menotti and dancer Erik Bruhn.

In addition to his writing, he seemed to be good friends with everyone of importance, especially the soon-to-be-famous painters and poets who hung out in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and '60s, like Frank O'Hara and Willem de Kooning, John Ashbery and Fairfield Porter, Kenneth Koch and Larry Rivers. And, as an inveterate photographer, Gruen captured all of these friends on film, either when they were in downtown Manhattan or when they came out to the house he shared with his wife, the painter Jane Wilson, and their daughter Julia, in Water Mill, N.Y., on the eastern end of Long Island.

But then, after this bright period of creativity, it seemed that Gruen simply vanished, that once the '70s passed, the high-profile journalism jobs evaporated, and the flow of books came to a halt. He had written a memoir called The Party's Over Now, about his '50s and '60s friends, which appeared in 1972, and, as the title intimated, the work appeared to bring down the curtain on a certain portion of his life.

That is, until 2006 or so, when a new book of his photos and a matching exhibition stirred up interest in the man and his work -- as well as lots of nostalgia for the period when a generation of great artists was breaking all the rules, and partying long and hard in and around the Hamptons. This renewed interest seemed to give impetus to the writer, who, now in his 80s, whipped up a new book titled Callas Kissed Me ... Lenny Too!: A Critic's Memoir, recently published by powerHouse Books.

The appearance of this new work has forced me to reassess my sense of Gruen's career and how it progressed. He did not, as I imagined, "disappear"

after 1972; it may just be that I wasn't paying proper attention, for it's now quite obvious that he kept on working -- diligently, in fact, during the long stretch of time when I had counted him absent, if not down for the count.

After the positions at the Tribune and the Times came to an end, he moved on to become chief art critic for New York magazine, an arts columnist for Vogue, contributing editor to ArtNews, a writer for Architectural Digest and senior editor at Dance Magazine. In all, he's written 15 books, and once The Party's Over Now appeared, he published The World's Great Ballets, People Who Dance, The Artist Observed, a book of photos and interviews called Facing the Artist, as well as the most recent book of photographic portraits that brought him all the renewed attention, called The Sixties: Young in the Hamptons.

Now comes Callas Kissed Me, etc., a title that begs for some explication. Obviously, the critic, who has been married to his ravishing wife for 60 years now, is confessing to his bisexuality, which was not all that much of a secret to those who knew his work way back when. His sexual experimentation makes up only a small portion of what he writes about here (no matter his frisky title) and he does, at various moments, make it clear that his preference has been for females -- and especially for his wife and the comforts of family life they've shared -- no matter the men he's been with.

A New Energy and Spirit

For those who've read Gruen, there's not a whole lot that's new here in terms of the biographical curve of his life, though he does bring the narrative more up to date in the last third of the book, all of it told with a new spirit and energy, despite the familiar details.

Gruen was actually born in Europe in 1926, in a small town north of Paris, the youngest of four boys. The place and the time have a sense of Old World charm about them, but Gruen, as has always been his manner, cuts to the chase and tells things exactly as they were. "As my mother told it, I was not the baby my parents longed for. Indeed, I was not longed for at all. The family was quite complete as it was. There was Leo, 16, the crown prince; Martin, 14, the gifted introvert; and Carl, 10, the extroverted mischief-maker. My mother was very clear that what this family did not need -- and at such a late date, she was 36 -- was another son. The whole thing was a huge mistake and disappointment because, as mother so innocently put it, if there was to be another baby, at least let it be a baby girl! But no such luck."

Then there were the circumstances of Gruen's birth. His mother, a gambler, went into labor while at the roulette table in "the little gambling town of Enghien-les-Bains." She had had the urge to gamble and nothing, not even an advanced pregnancy, was going to stop her. She did not deliver her fourth child on the floor of the gambling casino; "the perfect little boy my mother did not want" waited till the following day.

Gruen's parents had exotic backgrounds. His father came from a Romanian-Jewish family that wound up in Cairo, where the elder Gruen was born. Writes the memoirist: "I never knew what his family did except that there was dark talk of illegal horsetrading and that the family was exceedingly poor. As a boy he was obliged to sell fans on the sweltering streets of Cairo. From the beginning he had to fend for himself ... " He eventually went into the jewelry business (the trade of his in-laws) and became a very successful diamond dealer.

As for Gruen's mother, her background had a similar cloak of "vagueness" about it. She was born in Radzivilov, which at the time was part of Russia and later became part of Poland. Her parents, Joseph and Deborah Dodeles, were "as peripatetic as my father's family. Aunt Esther, my mother's youngest sister, once told me that her family was Greek (Dedalus was the original name), and not Jewish." Joseph, Gruen's maternal grandfather, established himself in Berlin, founding the jewelry firm Dodeles & Company, which Gruen's father eventually stumbled upon when he made his way to the German capital in search of his fortune.

In 1929, when little Jonas Gruen was 3, the family left Paris for Berlin again, the city where his three older brothers had been born. But the family soon had to face the fact that history had other plans for them. Once the Nazis seized powers, the family settled in -- of all places -- fascist Italy. There, the elder Gruen argued, they would be safe, and, actually, they were for a time. But history and politics managed to catch them off guard again. They fled, this time to America and the glowing promise of New York City. Unfortunately, they had to leave their three older sons behind, taking only Jonas with them. The others boys did make it to safety in America, through very circuitous routes, but the uncertainty about where the boys might be at any given time drove the Gruen parents nearly to distraction.

Jonas, however, was far too interested in becoming an American to worry about anything very much. He soon said he wanted to be called John and, though he arrived not speaking a word of English (he was just 13), he began mastering the language by going to the movies.

He dragged himself dispiritedly through high school. His father, always something of a dictator, wanted his youngest child to go into business; John longed to do something in the arts.

When it came to deciding on a college, Gruen chose the University of Iowa, because he thought Iowa had to be authentically American and he wanted to learn as much as he could about his adopted country. At the U. of I., he met the statuesque Jane Wilson, a native daughter of the Hawkeye state, who became his wife in 1948.

With college and multiple degrees under their belts, the couple decided to take New York by storm, and it is this tale that fills the central portion of Callas Kissed Me. There are moments -- as there are in all of Gruen's books -- when it seems he's just indulging in name-dropping. But these instances pass quickly, and there is no denying that the man knew everyone who was anyone -- and he's recorded it all here, names, faces and all other identifying marks in place. One can hardly deny that it's been quite a ride over the last 70 years or so since little Jonas Gruen first stepped on American soil -- and, also, that it's good to have him back.


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